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Teaching Impact

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By Thomas Bryer

Bryer julyThis is the second of an occasional column series. In April, I introduced the topic of concern: teaching impact. Specifically, I defined impact in a broad manner, considering both impact of our teaching on students and impact of our teaching and learning practices on community. Overlaying this discussion was the identification of four distinct but ultimately compatible missions of higher education: job creation, skill building, knowledge creation and dissemination and citizen cultivation. These missions or narratives are defined in more detail in my book, Higher Education beyond Job Creation: Universities, Citizenship and Community.

In this month’s column, I seek to unpack further the meaning and implications of impact. Much of the discussion will be guided by what might be a philosophical question or maybe just a technical question.

If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound? As a former mime in college, I always enjoyed this variation. If a mime screams in a forest, and nobody is around to hear it, did it really happen? What does this mean for teaching impact? Let me state the question differently. If a professor or student at a university does something extraordinary, but it is not being measured, does it really happen? Less philosophically, does it really matter?

We must be purposeful in what we measure to prevent bias, to encourage innovation and to ensure an integrative view of university missions and management. This is particularly true when what is measured is tied to money or the use of performance funding.

Budgets can be tied to specific measures of outcome, such as graduation or job placement rates. Tuition can be adjusted to promote or encourage students to study certain subjects, such as lower tuition for science, technology, engineering or math majors. Indeed, money and budgets are thought of as the tools of public policy to best manipulate behavior and alter the social and economic landscape. Thus, these are potentially important tools to encourage (or discourage) certain behaviors of institutions and the people serving within.

The most common indicators for measuring performance in higher education institutions are:

  • Graduation rates.
  • Retention rates.
  • Minority or low-income student outcomes.
  • Research productivity and external funding for research.
  • Student or faculty diversity.
  • Student pass rates on exams and licensure tests.

Recent additions to this list include average alumni salary and job placement rates of alumni. These are not bad measures, but they do not fundamentally capture the breadth of an integrative university mission consisting of job creation, skill development, knowledge creation and dissemination and citizen cultivation.

I suggest more inclusive and multi-faceted performance measures tied to this integrative mission. For instance, job creation is a vital objective of universities. There is much political and popular pressure to ensure universities are contributing to stronger local and national economies through their research and creative activities, and through their alumni. We ought to track average alumni salary five and 10 years post-graduation and track it by sector of employment so institutions that graduate public service professionals are not penalized. We can also track the number of alumni who start a new for-profit or nonprofit organization and the number of successful patent applications generated from within the university.

In skills development, we ought to track the percentage of alumni who find full time employment within their discipline within one year of graduation. This is a measure more talked about today, which demonstrates the financial benefit of a potentially expensive university education. Among other potential measures, I would include the percentage of employers who hire alumni who require retraining for alumni-employees.

Knowledge dissemination is important and should be measured, beyond the dissemination that is potentially instrumental or at least influential in job creation or economic activity. A strong university ought to develop not only students but also whole communities. As such, we can measure both the percentage of students and alumni who show empathy toward others (note: research on empathy shows troubling downward trends), as well as the percentage of citizens in communities surrounding the university who show empathy toward others. There ought to be measures of partnership with government, nonprofit, private or faith-based organizations and how those partnerships have benefited the organizations and the people served.

Finally, a strong university will promote citizenship. Beyond skilled employees, who do we want our alumni to be? I suggest the following kinds of measures—percentage of alumni who: (1) volunteered two or more hours per week in their community, (2) contributed 5-7% of their household income to charity per year, (3) contributed 8 percent or more of their household income to charity per year, (4) voted in their most recent election and (5) worked with others in their community within the past year to address a public concern.

Ultimately, we cannot judge a university’s or an individual program’s success on enrollment and graduation rates alone. These are simple input and output measures. Success and impact must also go beyond economic or market measures to embrace the integrative mission of the university. These ideas are described in more detail in my book, and I am happy to engage in discussion about any of them. Email me your ideas.

Also, email me any of your examples for measuring or achieving impact at your university. In my next column, I will focus on telling the story of these cases.


Author: Thomas Bryer is director of the Center for Public and Nonprofit Management and associate professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of Central Florida. His book, Higher Education beyond Job Creation: Universities, Citizenship and Community, is available now from Lexington Books or from any online book dealer. He is also chair of the ASPA section on Public Administration Education. He can be reached at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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